Data Harnessing for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

By Nsioh Macnight

Achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is a major governance challenge that will require, amongst other things, informed decision-making based on reliable and timely data. In our current ‘Information Age’, data sources are growing exponentially; from all kinds of citizen-generated data and satellite imagery, to administrative records and mobile phones. Continuous technological innovation and diverse data collection methodologies, analysis and dissemination are an opportunity to produce the knowledge and statistics required by decision-makers to tackle some of the pressing challenges facing our world such as climate change, poverty, and conflicts. More than ever, official data management systems are needed for a new ‘data architecture’, one that provides principles and rules to boost statistical capacities and at the same time protect the privacy of individuals. Considering the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, collecting timely, high quality and disaggregated data is imperative to success. In today’s world, huge amounts of data are collected automatically and those collecting the data are often not the users. To seize new data opportunities and harnessing their use towards a common good, it is necessary to bring the different users and producers of data together.

It is for these reasons that the UN convened its first ever Data Forum from 15 – 18 January 2017, in Cape Town, South Africa. The forum presented a suitable platform for intensifying cooperation with various professional statistical groups such as national statistical offices (NSOs), data scientists and representatives of government, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society.

What does disaggregating data represent to marginalized groups?

Failing to consider the particularity of women’s and girls’ lives will undervalue their experiences, economic contributions, and the roles they play in enhancing resilience of local communities. Data on gender should go beyond “achieving gender equality and empower women and girls” (SDG 5). This is because we will lose track of the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) if we cannot reveal the impacts of programs and policies on women’s and girls’ lives. Gender data can speed up the progress of the SDGs. To improve the outcome of women and girls, we need timely, inclusive, and open data to track the advancement and measure successes of our policies and programs.

In committing to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Member States also recognized that the “dignity of the individual is fundamental and that the Agenda’s goals and targets should be met for all people and nations and for all segments of society.” In development, age and gender matter, and this is recognized by disaggregating population data in this way. The UN World Data Forum was an opportunity to consolidate this common commitment to the SDGs, especially by looking at ways to collect powerful datasets that include all persons with disabilities.

Disaggregating data to highlight the impact of policies and programs on persons with disabilities is needed to measure the advancement of the SDGs.

To consolidate benefits made during the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era, and to develop high-quality and timely data on issues such as inequality and ensuring that no groups are left out, substantial additional investments will be required. Many NSOs in developing countries are underfunded and remain vulnerable to influence for political gains. To improve the quality of data for effective monitoring of the SDGs, it is essential that NSOs in developing countries are strengthened and financially autonomous, to curb any politically motivated influence.

The Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data was launched at this year’s UN World Data Forum. It is an ambitious plan that aims to strengthen systems to provide detailed data to ensure that no one is left behind. It calls for key actions in six strategic areas, including: coordination and leadership; innovation and modernization of national statistical systems; dissemination of data on sustainable development; building partnerships; mobilizing resources; and strengthening of statistical activities and programs. The plan acknowledges that this work will be country-led and will occur at sub-national, national, and regional levels. NSOs must coordinate its implementation at the country level.

One of the major setback of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was the lack of real-time monitoring in many parts of the developing world. The MDG indicators failed to serve adequately as a report card because of great time lag in getting in relevant data. For the SDGs to be a success, there is need for much investments in strengthening the statistical capacities of both public and private institutions, and for these institutions to be actively involved in the development of global and national indicator frameworks through multi-stakeholder processes that could be piloted by the UN Statistical Commission.